The Magic Brocade

The Magic Brocade

Think about the ancient civilisations of Asia, and if you’re anything like me, it won’t be long before you begin conjuring up mental pictures of beautiful men and women dressed in fabulously rich and decadent clothing; the iconic Japanese kimono [着物], the elegant Chinese cheongsam or qipao [旗袍] or perhaps even the Korean hanbok [한복]. The fabrics used to make these garments have long been popular trade commodities between the east and west – especially silk, which has been developed in China since around 3500 BC – and intricately decorated, through printing, dyeing, weaving and embroidery.

Silk brocade remains a popular Chinese export even today and its history goes back to at least the third century AD. Often mistaken for tapestry or embroidered fabric, brocade is in fact woven and is traditionally used for clothing, bedspreads, furniture and many other household items. The fabulous patterns and scenes depicted on brocade were often so intricate and beautiful that they appealed to the belief they were real…

There was once an old widow who lived in China. Her only companion was her faithful son, who looked after his mother diligently. For a living, the widow wove silk brocade. Her talent at the loom was so renowned that she was famous throughout the country nearby. People said that her woven animals, flowers and people were so real that they were almost alive, and that there was no brocade finer than that the widow wove.

When the old widow had finished a good amount of weaving, she would travel to the market in order to sell it. One morning was no different from any other; her brocade had never failed to fetch a good price at the market before, and that day she managed to sell every piece she had. She was able to buy everything at that she needed, with some left over. Returning home with the money she had earned, her eye was caught by a magnificent scroll on display. It was painted with a beautiful palace in a myriad of colours, with elegant towers reaching to the very sky. Below in the sumptuously green pleasure gardens, young maidens walked among the blossoms and enjoyed the sunshine, dressed in clothes that the widow could only dream of wearing.

The stall keeper smiled at the old widow. “This is the Sun Palace; a place far away to the east and the home of the fairies.”

The old widow sighed. “How I wish to go there.”

Her heart was immediately taken by the scroll. Despite its great cost, she bought it and took it home to her son. She loved to look at it and often dreamed that she could visit the wonderful Sun Palace just once. Her son, who was named Chen, often saw her looking at the scroll and could not begrudge the price, as he saw how happy it made his mother.

One day, Chen came to his mother and said, “Mother, why do you not weave this picture as a brocade? Then it would be almost like being there!”

So the old widow began to weave the picture she loved so much. Before long, the developing fabric took up so much of the day that she had no time to weave other things, or to go to market, and so Chen began to chop firewood and sell that at the market instead. The widow worked for hours, days, weeks, months on end and slept very little. Eventually her eyes became so bloodshot and her hands rubbed so raw that her son begged her to rest from her work. But she could not stop; the very act of weaving made her feel like she was there at the Sun Palace itself.

Inch by inch the beautiful picture formed under her loving and experienced hands. Many days passed, and finally, Chen returned to the house to find the loom empty and his mother sobbing. It was finished. The brocade was laid out reverently on the floor; there was the Sun Palace in all its glory, thronged by the young fairy women in all their splendour – a weaving so marvellous that it had driven its very creator to tears.

As he stood there gazing at the brocade, a great gust of wind swept into the little house and bore it away into the sky before either of them could catch it. Together they raced outside, but could only see a glimmer of fabric disappearing into the east. The old widow was distraught and took to her bed, knowing she had lost her masterpiece forever. She became weaker and weaker, and declared that she could not live without it.

Chen grew sad to see his mother this way, so he told her he would travel into the east to find the brocade and not return until he had found it. The old woman gave her son her blessing and he set out on his long journey. Chen travelled many miles over land, mountain and water; encountering many perilous adventures which in themselves would make fine tales. But however far he travelled, he found no sign of the brocade.

Determined not to give up his quest, Chen walked on. Eventually he came to an old hut. Sitting by the door was an ancient woman with skin as brown as old leather, looking at him and smoking a pipe. As he had done many times before, he asked the woman if she had seen any sign of the brocade. To his surprise, she had.

“Ah yes… the brocade of the Sun Palace! The wind of the fairies carried it away into the east. They are using it as a pattern for their own sewing,” she replied.

Overcome with gratitude, Chen thanked the woman many times and asked her how he might reach the Sun Palace. She eyed him critically and then spoke.

“It is quite a way yet from here. First you must pass through the flames of the Firey Mountain. If you complain of the heat, you will be burned alive. Then, you must cross the Icy Sea. If you utter one word, you will be frozen solid,” she warned. “Do you still wish to go?”

“I must,” he replied. “I must ask the fairy ladies to return my mother’s brocade.”

“Good boy,” she smiled. “Take my horse, for as long as you will not falter, he will bear you safely.”

Chen thanked the old woman again and rode eastwards. As the woman had promised, he soon came to a mountain all swathed in flame. He directed the horse up the slope. The fire burned him and he felt the flames singe his skin, but he remained silent and the old woman’s horse carried him safely down the other side. Strangely, before they had left the mountain very far behind, all his burns disappeared.

Then, they came to the shore of a vast sea, in which great chunks of ice floated. Without pausing, the horse leapt from one island to another. The water leapt up to soak Chen and he soon was deathly cold and miserable. But he remembered the old woman’s warning and said not a word of complaint. They reached the far shore safely. As miraculously as before, Chen immediately felt dry and warm.

Before him stood the Sun Palace, resplendent and beautiful; just as it had looked in his mother’s weaving. Quickly, he leapt from his horse and hurried into the palace, where he found the fairy women sitting in a great hall. They were arranged each at a loom, and in the centre of the room hung the brocade he had searched for. At his entrance the fairies all turned to look at him and one rose to greet him.

“Welcome, stranger, to the Sun Palace. My name is Li-en. You are the first mortal to reach the palace. For what end did you come here?”

Li-en was so beautiful that for a moment, Chen could only stare, wordlessly, at the figure before him. She shyly averted her eyes as he remembered his quest and told her of the brocade.

“So, you are the widow’s son! We watched the brocade being created, and when it was finished we so longed to have it for our own that we brought it here at once. As you can see, we have toiled to recreate it but fail to reach the mastery found in your mother’s hands.”

“Dear lady, I must return home with the brocade soon, or I fear my mother will die for lack of it!” he cried.

The fairies were very troubled by this, and bade him allow them until nightfall to finish their own. The next day, they reasoned, he could return to his mother with the brocade. He agreed to this with much joy. Spending much of the day sat by Li-en’s loom, they talked of their lives. Chen told Li-en of his life in the village and the bustling marketplace and all the people he had ever known. In return, Li-en told Chen of her life in the Sun Palace; of the many dances held in the summer, of the splendour of the trees in the autumn and her love for the home in which she lived.

They shared many smiles and sat so long together that they were oblivious of the other fairies, who one by one finished their brocades and left the great hall. Li-en was the last to finish, and by this time Chen had fallen fast asleep where he lay.

Li-en looked down at him softly, but then surveyed her work and sighed. “If only the old widow could teach us; then we could perhaps learn to weave as well as she.”

Then, a smile played across her lips. Leaning forward, she deftly embroidered a small figure on the widow’s brocade; herself, sitting upon the palace steps. Then she left the room, her last gaze resting upon the sleeping Chen.

The next morning, the fairies bid Chen farewell and he galloped away, his mother’s brocade safe in hand. When he reached the hut where the old woman dwelt, she called out to him anxiously.

“Your mother is near death! Quick, put on these shoes. They will carry you swiftly across the land back to her!”

Hurriedly, he put on the shoes which the old woman gave him and set off at a run over the land. To his amazement the shoes gave him so much speed that he almost flew; and before long, he reached his home and was at his mother’s bedside.

The old widow was indeed dying, with grief of the separation from both her brocade and her son. She was so overjoyed to have both returned to her so readily that the colour came back into her skin and she appeared well again. She urged her son to help her out into the daylight so that she could see the brocade more clearly. As she held it up to the light, a second great wind blew the brocade out of her hands; but this time, it hovered in the air before them and grew to an amazing size. Smiling, Li-en stood up from the palace steps and called to them.

“Quickly, take my hand while the wind still blows!” she beckoned, holding out her hand.

Chen was too astonished to move. But, overjoyed at seeing Li-en once more he took his mother’s arm and stepped forward into the brocade. For a moment, their eyes were dazzled by a great light; then, they found themselves standing in the gardens of the Sun Palace. Li-en came forward to welcome them both. The old widow was so touched by the fairies’ request to teach them that she agreed. She came to live in the Sun Palace and, with her blessing, Chen and Li-en were married.

Ever since, the people of China have said that the most beautiful brocades come from the Sun Palace.

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